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Professional Development

Reflections on Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind

Written by Petra Claflin, TE Instructional Coach

I recently attended the ASCD conference in Philadelphia and the final morning of the conference, I participated in Eric Jensen’s session on Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Early in the session he described the effects of chronic stress and the two major ways it manifests itself in our students’ behavior.  The first he called ‘prolonged response’ where the students stay in an actively stressed state that doesn’t go away.  These are the students, he said, that will overreact to stressful situations and don’t hesitate to get in our faces or lash out at any provocation.  I have had very few experiences like this with students in the past decade, so I was feeling pretty good about myself and my approach to my high-poverty students over the years.  And then he presented the second manifestation of chronic stress, the ‘inadequate response.’  As he described it, two students’ faces popped in my mind—Jose, from my first year teaching, and Esteban, from my 5th year of teaching.  Jensen talked about how students with an ‘inadequate response’ disconnect and detach; they look and act like they don’t care.  Their bodies don’t respond to stress so they don’t have to deal with it.  Everything Jensen said seemed to make complete sense with these two boys and as the session went on I had the sinking feeling I had failed them miserably.

Both boys had failed my class and so failed for the year.  Jose was 13 in my 5th grade class and so I was responsible for him repeating a 3rd grade level in elementary school.  I don’t know what happened to Jose after elementary school, but a glance at the statistics of students who enter high school after failing more than on grade tells me that he most likely didn’t get past 9th grade.  Esteban was in 8th grade when I taught him and he failed my English class and so failed for the year; this was his second retention.  Unfortunately, I know what happened to Esteban.  He went on to fail 10th grade and then get sent to jail for selling cocaine during his sophomore year at the age of 18.  Last I heard he had just gotten fired from his full-time job at Foot Locker.

My approach with these boys had felt right at the time.  It was basically a ‘tough love’ approach.  They were both incredibly bright and I knew they could handle the material easily, so I pushed them, held them to high expectations, and developed good relationships with them.   These are all good things and as I look back I know they’re good things.  The missing piece was the support they needed.  If they were absent from school and missed a test, following the school rules, I didn’t allow them to make up the test until they had a signed excuse note from their parents.  If they didn’t do their homework, I would give them a talking to along the lines of, “I know you can do this.  You’re a very smart kid.  You need to start buckling down or you’re going to fail.  Do you want to fail?  It’s your decision.  I can’t decide for you.”  Even though it was meant as a pep talk, this was a threat and came with the message, ‘You’re on your own.’  I thought I was motivating them and was ignorantly assuming they were deciding to be disengaged in class; deciding to not come to school; deciding to sleep in class; deciding to fail.  I knew their home lives weren’t good.  I had done all the right things as far as getting to know them and building a good relationship with them.  They were both kids I talked to during lunch and had overwhelmingly positive relationships with.  The problem was, they didn’t know how to help themselves and I didn’t know what kind of help they needed.  When Esteban missed the final exam in my class, I told him he wasn’t allowed to make it up without an excuse note from his mom and that he’d fail without that note.  Again, this was part of what I thought was a pep talk.  What it really was, was a threat that if he didn’t do X, Y would happen, and so his response should have been totally understandable.  Had I been able to read the signs of his chronic stress, I could have predicted that he would shrug his shoulders, walk out, and proceed to not get a note from his mom.

Despite the pit in my stomach over my mistakes with these boys, that guilt and frustration will only go away if I can learn from this experience in a way that positively impacts kids.  As an Instructional Coach, I now have the opportunity to touch the lives of hundreds more students every year than I could have as a teacher!  I’m empowered and reassured by the fact that my failure can become a success as I commit to making sure the novice teachers I work with are more aware of the impact of poverty and chronic stress on their students and don’t make the same mistakes I did.

Tune in next week for helpful strategies based on Teaching with Poverty in Mind…

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